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Shocking a nation

It’s regarded as one of Australia’s most iconic TV ads. But, as Jake Kendall reports, it wasn’t selling beer or cars or yeast extract — it was selling fear.

On 5 April 1987, Australian prime-time TV audiences caught sight of a cloaked skeletal figure — scythe in one hand, bowling ball in another — poised to strike down a group of human pins. As the men, women and children (and even a baby) are bowled into oblivion, a doom-laden voice-over announces: “At first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS, but now we know every one of us could be devastated by it.”

Daniel Reeders — health consultant and blogger — had just turned six. “My television memories from this time are Mary Delahunty reading the ABC news and the Grim Reaper — Mary was much better coiffed and dressed.” Little Reeders had no idea what the ad meant, but it made an indelible impression. “It was by far the weirdest thing I’d ever seen,” he says. “I found it thrilling — a mini horror movie before bed.”

Commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS), the Grim Reaper ad suddenly brought the epidemic to mainstream Australia. Before the ad aired, AIDS was confined to the marginalised: gay men, sex workers, and injecting drug users. Chair of NACAIDS at the time was Ita Buttrose. “When I first saw it, it absolutely chilled me to the bone,” she says. “It was a controversial campaign in that it really shocked people — that was the intention.”

Such was the reaction, the ad was pulled amid a public backlash. Originally scheduled to air for 12 weeks, the TV campaign’s run was cut short. The person responsible for the furore was ad man Siimon Reynolds (that’s not a typo — he changed the spelling of his name on numerological advice). “I’m not interested if it ruined people’s dinners,” he says. “They really needed to be shocked.”

Former NACAIDS representative, Phil Carswell, remains equally unrepentant. “I don’t regret what the ad provided for us in terms of an open door to every school in the country … into every bowls club and social organisation and Rotary.  Every doctor, GP and health professional who tried to ignore [AIDS] in the past, now couldn’t.” Research carried out after the TV ad aired found that an incredible 97 percent of Australians had seen it.

Dr Ron Penny diagnosed Australia’s first AIDS case in October 1982. An original member of NACAIDS, Dr Penny was among those who gave the Grim Reaper the green light. He found the reaction astounding. “I think there’s never been anything on television or any media that has ever matched it in terms of impact,” he says, “but no advertising can be without some downside.”

The “downside” Dr Penny refers to is the unintended demonisation of people with HIV — particularly gay men. Rather than symbolising death, the figure of the Grim Reaper was perceived by many as representing those with the disease. As a result, the Grim Reaper ad compounded the discrimination and stigma already being levelled at people with the virus. “That campaign added greatly to the burdens carried by those of us who were living with HIV at the time,” says long-term survivor David Menadue. “With our sunken cheeks and thinning limbs, many of us looked not unlike the Reaper himself. So, rather than fearing the virus, people began fearing those with HIV.” As well as further stigmatising an already maligned population, the ad instilled a sense of fear and hopelessness amongst those living with HIV. “With the message that ‘AIDS kills’, it gave people who were ill at the time less hope that they would survive,” says Menadue.

The campaign was also criticised for exaggerating the risk AIDS posed to the heterosexual population. In the ad, the voice-over claims that “over 50,000 men, women and children now carry the AIDS virus” and “if not stopped, it could kill more Australians than World War II”. By way of explanation, Reynolds says: “There was political fear there’d be a backlash against gays if everybody thinks it’s some kind of gay plague.” As well, he says: “Other countries had failed in their AIDS education because heterosexuals weren’t listening — we really had to wake people up.”

There is no doubt that the shock tactics proved extremely effective in alerting people to the existence of AIDS. Most importantly, says Menadue: “[The ad] did help raise awareness among politicians and bureaucrats about the need to fund more public health campaigns, including more targeted ones aimed at gay men, and needle-and-syringe programs to combat intravenous transmission.” Reeders agrees: “They funded affected communities to develop targeted, relevant, funny, sexy campaigns and resources that acknowledge both risk and pleasure,” he says.

For all its faults, the Grim Reaper campaign perfectly captured the fear and uncertainty of the times. After all, in 1987, the epidemic was an unknown quantity; there was no sign of a cure, and treatments were rudimentary. Thirty years on, the Grim Reaper ad remains firmly in the Australian psyche like no other, and is lauded worldwide as one of the most memorable and successful health campaigns ever devised.   

Watch the Grim Reaper ad here

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